Have you ever heard of Italo? The name refers to a genre of music that was made primarily in Italy (though not exclusively), and is basically a catch-all term for the pop music of 1980s Italy. What could be more intriguing?
Like any genre of music, Italo carries with it degrees of sophistication, polish, and genuine artistry. A lot of Italo was made by youngsters in make-shift home studios. But some of it was created in the big flashy studios of Rome and Bologna. There are a few cross-over Italo hits that made it to the radio in the States too. The most famous one, by RAF, called “Self-Control” was covered by Laura Branigan who scored a big hit with it in 1985. My favorite version of that song comes from a Miami Vice episode (“The Great McCarthy”) where a local Miami band, The Persuaders, are heard covering it at a hip party. It’s a great moment in television history. Or perhaps you’ve seen the Mockingbird favorite, The Last Days of Disco, where Ryan Paris’ song “La Dolce Vita” (obviously a reference to Romans 8:1) is featured prominently in one of the film’s final scenes. And there’s this ridiculous one which was a fairly substantial radio hit, also in 1985.
The hall-marks of Italo include: English lyrics sung by people who don’t speak English, synthesizers, drum machines (often coupled with live percussion), and robotic vocals (made using something called a vocoder — go to 1:09 for an amazing example). Many of the classics also include tom-centric drum solos during the instrumental breaks in-between verses (i.e., in place of guitar solos). The range of music within the genre is huge, from prom-ballads to punk-y New Wave scorchers (like this Vivien Vee jam), from glammed-out sexy synth-pop to amateur garage experiments in twisted funk, from R & B boogie to odd Rasta sell-out pop, with huge amounts of cosmic electronic fun, bad teenage rapping, and 80s fashion sensibility for days.
Most Italo is light-hearted, full of catchy Top 40-type hooks that sort of require you to shut off your brain, allowing your heart to do the listening, the epitome of “guilty pleasure” music. You won’t tell anyone that you listen to Italo, but you may find yourself turning it up to 11, lip-syncing and dancing in your Smart car in traffic in the middle of the day (while wearing your collar, on the way to a hospital visit), because you just can’t help it.
Italo experienced a huge resurgence in popularity (in Europe) starting about 15 years ago. While DJs in the US were digging for obscure funk records, their European counter-parts began exploring the obscure records of their past, with Italo records being a huge component of the Continental vinyl legacy. Today these records often sell for huge amounts of money, like $200-300 for a single 12″ single (for example: current Italo Ebay auctions).
For me, the music has come to take on theological overtones and subtext. Perhaps I’m the only one who naturally assumes that the voice of a robot obviously represents the (foreign/alien) word of the Gospel, a revelation, the word from outside. The amateur-ish singing is human in the extreme, which in Italo means typically quite raw in its production and confusingly inarticulate (jump to 3:55), depicting humanity in its fallen state of constrained need (i.e., for salvation). The dynamic tom-tom solos represent the battle between the human and the robot, our endless struggle to incorporate and trust the robotic/heavenly voice of assurance that we find in Christ. The fact that the lyrics are not being sung in their native tongue also reminds me of the way that the Gospel restructures our interaction with the world, causing us, at least in theory, to reach out charitably to our neighbors, often at the expense of comfort, all for the sake of getting a simple message out which will bless those who have not encountered it before.
Plus, there’s the fact that 99% of Italo is, at its heart, music designed to make people dance. Think of the inhibitions that have to be overcome for a person to start dancing, the needed freedom from the Law that only a special groove can draw forth. It’s the kind of thing that one can easily associate with the Gospel. For example:
And because it is so unlike the majority of the American rock music tradition, in that it places little to no emphasis upon the guitar, Italo has the ability to completely reorient our thinking about music by sort of throwing the US listener off balance. You might hate it; foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others. But I, for one, absolutely love it! And so do these people:
Here is a mix I made five years ago of some Italo “classics”. It’s called Italo 101 and should serve as a nice primer for those who want to wade in. A friend of Mockingbird who works as a photographer told me that he used to put it on during photo shoots because it brought a weird candidness to the proceedings. He used it, for example, when he photographed the now adult members of the band Hanson (of “MmmBop” fame). Apparently they “sort of liked it”.
Finally, it is worth noting that Italo music paved the way for modern electronic dance music, house music, DFA-type hipster stuff, and so much of the contemporary landscape of music today (e.g., Turntable-ist Competitions began in Italy). All of it came from “Nazareth”, the Italian equivalent, from fisherman-like voices in small towns that dotted what were at that time still very much the remote countryside. Here are three more of my favorite specimens of this weird and important piece of pop/music history (in case you haven’t been making use of the hyper-linked Italo-canon history lesson contained within the text above).
p.s., Don’t get me started on “Italo Disco”, which is a completely different but equally amazing genre.